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Passenger Paddle Steamers in the USA and Canada

Above : The last US paddle steamer built for day services in the historical era : Alexander Hamilton of 1924 on the Hudson River at Bear Mountain, NY. Slightly smaller than a couple of her earlier fleet-mates, she at least adopted triple expansion diagonal engines as a modern departure from the traditional beam engine long adhered to by US paddle steamer operators. 1924 was to see the introduction of the giant paddle steamer Greater Buffalo (hot on the heels of sister ship Greater Detroit) for night services on Lake Erie. These leviathans were the largest paddle steamers ever built with the exception of the UK's remarkable Brunel-designed outlier Great Eastern. 
Photo courtesy of the Hudson River Maritime Museum

The history of paddle steamers is an enormous and detailed one and has not attempted to do more than give a brief overview to encourage further research. These notes concentrate on passenger services, shipping companies and vessels which were operational in the twentieth century and gives limited details on earlier operations to give a historical pespective. There is a section for each of the main regions in which side-wheel paddle steamers operated
The photographs used are believed to be in the public domain due to their age but will be removed on request by the genuine copyright holder. All images are used for educational purposes only. My thanks to those who have previously posted these images of North American paddle steamers

Passenger Paddle Steamers reached new heights of size in the United States and Canada and it was not just the famous Mississippi-style sternwheelers we now associate with the USA. On the Great Lakes and along mighty rivers and linking places along the US's jagged coastline, it was side-wheelers which were operated. These included day services and "night boats" with cabin accommodation, filling the gaps where railways had not yet penetrated and often run by or in conjunction with railway companies. On the major rivers, travel by paddle steamer could be in sumptuous surroundings and for some it was a preferable experience to any competing railway. Excursion traffic was also significant. Some paddlers carried cargo as well as passengers. Most dedicated cargo services became the realm of screw steamships but paddlers retained a role where very shallow-draught vessels were necessary. Waterside communities relied on the vessels to bring in and send out goods as well as to get people to and from cities such as New York and Detroit in an era of immigration, population growth, industrial development and nation building.

On the Great Lakes, St Lawrence River, the east coast of the USA, particularly Long Island Sound and the Hudson River steamers reached an enormous size, especially in the early part of the twentieth century. Paddle steamers held their own against screw steamers for many years and the demise of the paddler really coincided with the decimation of passenger traffic as railways, but more importantly the road networks, developed. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the resulting economic depression only added to the owners' difficulties. 1924 marked a stuuden halt to new building of paddle steamers and a slow decline symbolised by the closure of the great Lake Erie overnight routes in the mid-1950s and the remarkable but lonely survival of the Hudson River Day Steamer Alexander Hamilton until 1971 

In earlier years, steamboating could be very hazardous. Not only were coasts and waterways treacherous and not always well charted, wooden built ships with rudimentary steam engines and boilers, fires to heat the saloons and a range of potentially combustible cargoes, became a persistent fire hazard. Many were lost this way, sometimes with significant loss of life. Many ywere also lost, sometimes mysteriously, as a result of fires during winter lay-ups and in the country's interior, crushing winter ice regularly accounted for wooden ships.  It was not until the 1880s that iron hulls became more common and the 1890s  when steel slowly began to appear. Even in latter years, wood was used for ships' superstructures and was one of reasons why some vessels, when being scrapped, were burnt out first. Many ships were left abandoned to deteriorate on coasts or riverbanks and sunken wrecks were rarely raised.

Wood was, of course, in plentiful supply in the vast undeveloped interiors away from the main cities, so as well as being cheap it was easy to work with using traditional skills. Iron and latterly steel was in short supply and expensive. As ships grew in size and the machinery installed ever heavier, wooden framing became increaingly problematic and ingenious solutions were developed to strengthen the hulls. Arched tensioning beams over much of the length of the ship, known as hogging trusses, became a common and characteristically noticeable feature which distinguised paddlers in the Americas from their European counterparts.

Above : The arched "hogging truss" can be seen clearly on New York City's excursion ferry General Slocum. Noticeable as well are the extremely large paddle wheel boxes and the upper parts of the vertically-operating beam engine. All three differentiated paddle steamer design in North America from that of Europe

Rivers into the interior were also often hazardous to navigate and many were strewn with wrecks with those of some paddle steamers still existing today. Coastal sea conditions could be atrocious in winter and such difficulties affected the Great Lakes, especially the larger Lakes Michigan and Superior with particularly severe winters. Ice could be a real problem, especially for wooden-hulled ships.  Even in sheltered coastal waters such as Long Island Sound, weather conditions can become extremely aggressive and in the days of wooden ships and often a carefree attitude to safety, numerous tragedies occurred.  

Paddle steamers in North America took on a different design from those in Europe and appeared noticeably different in most instances. The persistence with wooden hulls has been noted, but the affection for the simple, one-cylinder, vertically installed Beam Engine led to to notable characteristics. The Beam Engine was a steam engine in its simplest form only little changed from the earliest water-pumping engines of the era of pioneering engineer James Watt. Cheap, even if not particularly economical, the piston stroke was typically 144 inches (12 feet) and the cylinder diameter 60 inches (5 feet). Being installed vertically, the associated equipment and swinging metal "walking beam" necessarily poked out of the top of the ship and visibly above any upper passenger promenade deck. The beam engine's extremely slow movements led to a low revolution rate on the paddle wheel, so in order to get sufficient propulsion, the wheels themselves had to be massive in size, although the development of feathering mechanisms allowed smaller wheels. Remarkably, beam engines continued to be fitted into paddle steamers in the early part of the 20th century, with the massive "night boats" of the River Hudson being examples, with their Trojan and Rensselaer being built in 1909. It was not unusual for new ships, even high presige vessels, to inherit the engine of a much older withdrawn or even sunken ship. One notable example was the Hudson River Day Line's Robert Fulton of 1909 which used engines from 1887 recoved from sunken fleet-mate New York although. The company had progressed to compound diagonal engines for its Hendrick Hudson of 1906  and only the company's last paddler, Alexander Hamilton of 1924, had a triple diagonal engine installed. The Great Lakes leviathans designed by Frank E Kirby latterly employed three-cylinder compound engines with the high pressure cylinder exhausing to two equal-sized low pressure cylinders.

The story of steamboating was a complicated but fascinating one. A free-for-all of aspiring owners all trying to make a living in the New World and the growing power of industrial magnates led to the proliferation of operators and frequent consolidations and corporate take-overs, over-expansion, cut-throat competition, some questionable business dealings on occasion and bankruptcies. Closely associated with the development of the railways, steamboat services were a forerunner of the railway mania which was to follow. The quest to be the best on the waters and keep business from the railways led to the construction of the largest and finest paddle steamers the world had ever seen. Whilst initially successful, it was not to last. Fares had to remain competitively low and the expansion of the road system and motor car usage was the final nail in the coffin

Various artefacts have been saved from scrapped ships, including interior fittings and some machinery in museums. The only complete traditional paddle steamer still in existence is Ticonderoga, which sailed on Lake Champlain, which is preserved on dry land as an exhibit at a museum at Shelburne

Photo : Ticonderoga, built in 1906 and in service on Lake Champlain, Vermont, until 1953, seen in 2011. By kind courtesy of  "storylanding" on wikicommons and placed in the public domain

This section is organised as follows :

Great Lakes  (USA)

Hudson River

New York City, Coney Island and Northern New Jersey Coast

Long Island Sound and North Eastern Seaboard

Delaware River

Chesapeake Bay

South East Coast and Gulf of Mexico

Lakes Champlain, George, Cayuga and Winnepesaukee 

Mississippi River System 

Lake Coeur d'Alene

Pacific Seaboard (USA)


Source : The Registers of Merchant Vessels of the United States from 1895
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